UND student Michelle Nguyen nearly dropped out. Her family had financial trouble, but the first-generation student didn’t falter. It was just one more obstacle for her to overcome.
The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen has faced many obstacles in her life. Her family’s story starts with the Vietnam War when her father, Michael, grew up in a family with 16 siblings. To help support the family, he walked many miles each day to sell ice cream. Michael made his way to the U.S., where he eventually saved enough money to bring his family to America.
Although Nguyen and her younger brother were born in the U.S., they grew up speaking only Vietnamese. “When I went to school, it was like, ‘Why don’t these kids speak Vietnamese?’” she recalls.
She struggled early with reading comprehension, but it didn’t stop her from taking up figure skating, joining clubs, holding a job, or being elected student council president.
As a high school junior, Nguyen suffered a back injury that, at first, didn’t seem serious. “The next morning, I had no feeling from my hips to my toes,” she says. “I was in my bed screaming, ‘I can’t feel my legs! I can’t skate!’”
The injury forced Nguyen to give up her dream of becoming a professional figure skater, so she channeled her energy into other efforts, such as managing the campaign of a teacher who successfully ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature.
Nguyen missed skating, so she decided to try out for UND’s hockey cheer team. She had never been a cheerleader, but making the team still felt like a dream come true. “I get to skate at Ralph Engelstad Arena,” she says. “Every time I step on the ice, I have chills.”
But there were other more serious challenges at UND. Nguyen faced the possibility of dropping out because of her parents’ financial difficulties—caused by an injury that prevented her father from working. “I was just going to drop out and go work with my parents,” Nguyen says. “I didn’t know what I else I could do.”
With help from Yee Han Chu, UND’s academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, Nguyen applied for a national scholarship. Of the more than 7,000 applicants, Nguyen was one of only 22 who received the annual $10,000 renewable Dream Award scholarship. She also was awarded a second national scholarship through the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Program for students planning to complete a doctorate.
“I want to be a role model for first-generation students, the families of refugees and immigrants, and anyone who aspires to receive an education,” she says. “I don’t want to just be an advocate. I want to be a person who actually does something about it.
“I knew I didn’t have much, but if there was one thing I had going for me, it was my education,” Nguyen says. “Education is the most powerful tool that we have. That’s what kept me going.”
See more Leaders in Action at UND.edu/leaders.